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Ever since Toby Keith made the leap from country star to superstar with his 1999 hit "How Do You Like Me Now?" it seems he's been reiterating that question with each successive release.
Latching onto an ultra-macho, party-hearty patriot persona through that hit and subsequent ones such as "I Wanna Talk About Me" and "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)," he's been like the frat guy who tries to suck in his gut during the all-night kegger to keep up a good impression.
That hasn't left much breathing room for artistic growth, but with his 13th album (due in stores Tuesday), the former Oklahoma oil rig worker has finally decided to exhale. And what a difference.
The title song keeps the energy level up, but cannily shifts his role model from Hank Williams Jr. to Waylon Jennings, who brought more dimension to his songs with his willingness to display his human weaknesses.
Keith opens up here too, with a refreshingly honest outing that still maintains a high fun factor. "As Good as I Once Was" laments what diminishes with age, and expresses pride in what remains. "You Ain't Leavin' (Thank God Are Ya)" borrows a page from Brad Paisley's book of how to drop in a great punch line.
"Big Blue Note" and "She Left Me" take real-world looks at being dumped, avoiding the adolescent "nyah nyah-nyah nyah nyah" tack of "How Do You Like Me Now?" No wonder Merle Haggard decided to hang with him, lending his voice to "She Ain't Hooked on Me No More," another disarming song of loss.
This time, Keith's loss is a music fan's gain.
They're rising on their satirizing
Goldie Lookin' Chain
"Straight Out of Newport"
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To say there's something a bit Spinal Tap about this ragtag Welsh rap posse (see what I mean?) is not to diminish the euphoric lift that its debut album provides. In fact, the Tap touches -- a lumbering earnestness, clumsy crudeness and utter disregard of limitations and inhibition -- only add to the charge.
Sporting (and quickly scrapping) a grandiose self-mythology, they lumber into view like a motley pack of laborers and layabouts, then break into a series of rambunctious, exuberant hip-hop tableaux.
It's mostly straight-on satire ("Self Suicide," an irreverent assessment of suicide as career strategy, and the self-evident "Guns Don't Kill People, Rappers Do"), but there's also an affectionate bit of nostalgia for a youthful haunt ("Roller Disco"), and a baffled response to a new feature being sported by a friend's mother.
It's Beastie Boys attack and "Goon Show" silliness, Bonzo Dog Band absurdism and Ali G deadpan. Connoisseurs of British accents will enjoy the variety of broad dialects on parade, and the music tracks are diverse and engaging -- from old-school R&B to cheery vaudeville.
The group plays the Troubadour on May 25, which is good timing. As engaging as "Straight Out of Newport" is, it doesn't quite corral the charisma the eight rappers generate in their kinetic live show.
-- Richard Cromelin